Ian McEwan, Thanks for the Peanut Butter

On Chesil Beach

I’ve been doing really well with my personal commitment to read like a madwoman this year. So far, I’ve consumed 23 books, and I hope to end 2015 with a total of 30.

When I finish a book, I generally savor the last line and the feeling of accomplishment for a few minutes, and then I wander over to my bookshelf to pick out my next adventure.

I finished book #23 on Monday night, and I did not immediately go to my bookshelf. In fact, I couldn’t bring myself to pick up a new book until this morning. And even that action is largely due to the fact that I have to read King Lear by next Wednesday’s Juvenile Court Book Club meeting—not because I’m hankering for a new story.

I feel this way, because Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach has stuck with me the way peanut butter sticks to the roof of your mouth. I’ve had a hard time deciding how I feel about this book. I’ve had a hard time navigating my feels after finishing it.

On Chesil Beach begins with a telling first line, which sets the stage for the whole work: “They were young, educated, and both virgins on this, their wedding night, and they lived in a time when a conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly impossible.” Instant tension, instant conflict, and oh my God, how intimate that we are about to join this couple on their wedding night!

I’ve admired Ian McEwan’s work for quite some time now. Atonement is a triumph—heartbreaking and beautiful. Amsterdam, which I read a couple months ago, is a darkly comic romp through ghosts and betrayal. McEwan has this uncanny ability to find the moments and experiences where vastly different personalities intersect in very interesting ways. He’s a master of those surreal emotions that can drive us to do the strangest things.

On Chesil Beach showcases McEwan’s abilities on a whole other level. You know from the very beginning, from that first line, that this couple’s first sexual experience is not going to be blissful—it’s going to be a disaster.

And it is painfully uncomfortable wading into the storm. Unlike the experience of reading some of McEwan’s other works, I felt like a true voyeur while reading On Chesil Beach. I felt like I was right next to Edward and Florence from the moment they met to the moment they wed. McEwan takes us uncompromisingly close to the young lovers—into their heads, under a skirt, within a touch or a gaze. And “being there,” unable to do anything about it—ugh, my heart!

Through McEwan’s descriptions, I re-experienced all the awkward, terrible encounters I’ve had with lovers over the years. I felt like I was watching a horror film. I wanted to call out to the young couple and warn them of what was ahead, what I could see coming but they certainly couldn’t. It was like watching an impending train crash—one that takes 130 pages to happen.

There were passages that were incredibly hard to read—a few that were uncomfortably anatomical and many that were emotionally exhausting. There was so much pressure to live up to a single moment and so many things at stake.

I wanted these two to beat the odds, to have an awesome first experience, for love (because they are most definitely in love!) to soften all the edges of the awkwardness that is first-time lovemaking.

But again, that first line.

Undoubtedly, those first 130 pages or so unnerved me. A lot. I considered putting the book down a few times.

But I’m glad I didn’t. I’m glad I pushed through, because the brilliance of this book occurs in the aftermath of this one pivotal moment in time. McEwan handles the emotional upheaval of young Edward and Florence with such grace and honesty. As a reader, I understood both sides of this difficult life episode to such a great degree that I didn’t find myself siding with either one of them. I simply felt everything and wilted and wanted to scream for them both.

And the final line of the book—the final page, really—left an imprint on my brain and my heart, something muddy and imperfect. When I closed the book, I couldn’t really move for a few minutes. I let the waves of Chesil Beach wash over me, and I knew I wouldn’t pick up a new book for a couple days.

For that, I say thank you, Ian McEwan. For putting me in the hotel room with Edward and Florence on that life-changing night. For weaving me into their love story as an observer. For making me deeply, deeply uncomfortable as a reader—a veritable skill. For that sticky feeling of peanut butter in my mouth, something that made me pause and absorb what I’d just experienced before scurrying to find another story to devour. And for true dedication to your characters and their complex emotions, something I will always admire in your work.

Fahrenheit 451 (AKA USA 911)

Photo by flickr user ".sarahwynne."

Photo by flickr user “.sarahwynne.”

A few nights ago, I turned the final page of Ray Bradbury’s seminal work Fahrenheit 451—and found myself wondering how and where Bradbury gained his awe-inspiring prescience, because the dystopian world he created in 1953 is a little too close to the real world of 2015.

If, like me, you were never assigned this classic to read in school, it’s a dystopian work that Bradbury wrote when the U.S. was ensconced in the Cold War and the television was a brand new invention. Bradbury essentially asks in Fahrenheit, “What would happen if society became morbidly obsessed with TV, discarding the emotional resonance and knowledge in books for frivolous, digital entertainment?”

Well, the world of Fahrenheit 451 happens, a world where firemen don’t put out fires, they start them—for the sole purpose of burning books, which have been outlawed. If you’re found to have books, the firemen come to burn them and you’re arrested. If you run, mechanical hounds sniff out fugitives and kill them.

But Fahrenheit citizens aren’t angry or fearful. Rather, they go with the status quo. Reading and writing aren’t taught in schools. Concepts like love and happiness don’t exist. Citizens are anesthetized with TV screens the size of walls, “seashells” in their ears that transmit constant noise, pills, and monotony. Suicides are frequent, but emotionless. And despite frequent flyovers by military jets, no one seems concerned that a war or destruction could be looming.

In Fahrenheit, we follow Guy Montag, a fireman by trade who is married to Mildred and working hard to get her a fourth TV screen for their living room. One night, while walking home, Montag meets Clarisse, a young girl who simply strolls around town at night (unheard of in this society) and doesn’t own a TV, instead choosing to spend time talking to her flesh-and-blood family (also unheard of). Montag is immediately fascinated by Clarisse and at one point, calls her a “mirror.” Something is awakened in Montag and his emotional stirring hurtles him into a dangerous awakening.

When Montag starts to wonder about the taste of rain and the impending war and the words on the pages of books, he begins to set himself apart—and in doing so, makes himself a target for his neighbors, employer, and even the government. Will Montag be able to break the shackles of this oppressive society? And if can, then what?

While the story of Guy Montag and the society of Fahrenheit is fictional, the parallels to modern society are uncanny. We’re living in a world where books are fading into the background and TV reigns supreme. Even the format of books is changing. Everything is going digital, impersonal, intangible. Pretty soon, I fear the firemen of Fahrenheit 451 wouldn’t have anything to burn in our world. Perhaps they’d consider that an accomplishment.

The character of Mildred, Montag’s wife, is an extreme caricature of societal influence—and yet she doesn’t seem like such a stretch in today’s world. Mildred is always plugged in. Those “seashells” don’t leave her ears (can you say ear buds or Bluetooth devices?). Instead of spending time with her husband at night, Mildred goes into the living room to spend time with her “family,” the characters that talk to her through her TV (complete with name personalization, because that’s not creepy or anything). How many people watch the Kardashian family on TV instead of having dinner with theirs?

And, of course, Mildred takes handfuls of pills to “help her sleep,” and can’t remember when she overdoses. She shrugs off her brush with death and continues to live her life drugged and deluded. How often do we push pills instead of dealing with larger issues like depression, unhappiness, and restlessness organically? We often turn to anesthetization—a quick fix for a larger problem, because it seems simpler. But at what cost?

I finished Fahrenheit 451 a few days ago, but I think I’m finally getting around to digesting it today. It’s a hard pill to swallow. But also an important one.

Now I wonder—if Bradbury wrote another dystopian novel based upon the society of 2015, what would be next to burn?


Photo license.sarahwynne.